aNewDomain — It’s the end of another term of college classes. I teach at two schools. One wrapped at the end of last week; at the other, this is finals week.
So the next couple of days involve watching people come in anxious, nervous, energized. Watch them panic just a little, maybe. Reveal the test and the questions, watch them research and scribble, stretch.
Some will fail. Most will do okay – not because the test is easy, but because these students feel up for the challenge.
Then, after, mostly they’ll just leave. I won’t see most of my students again. A couple in a hallway here or there, and later I might maybe see them at their work, by coincidence.
I’m usually surprised, though, by the people who want to take the time to say goodbye. And I am really surprised by the students who show up in my classes again for another term.
Some folks interact a lot. It’s how they learn: through debate or discussion or giving their own examples.
Some people are really quiet, though. They’re shy. Reserved.
If the classroom were a forum on the Internet, we’d call them lurkers.
A few of the high participators want to shake hands, say thanks. Cool.
What surprises me is when the lurkers do it.
A shy smile, a tentative handshake, uncertain body distance. “Thanks,” they say. Or: “I had fun.” Or: “You made this interesting. And I learned something.”
You know, when it’s the confident people, the talkers, interactors, I know what to do.
Yeah, you too, I say. Have a nice life, or maybe I’ll see you for two-thirty-five …
But when it’s the uncertain people, I’m moved.
Someone who doesn’t regularly talk, whose introversion often disguises their interest, who avoids eye contact like I do … when they take the time, I know this is someone who has been moved. So I’m moved, too.
And because they’re uncertain, careful, and because they don’t speak in platitudes, I often don’t know what they mean. Or how to respond.
My social skills training covered platitudes. Like: How are you? What’s up? Thanks, man. It didn’t cover authenticity or vulnerability.
A student wanted me to sign my book this time.
I wanted to write something personal. I wanted to inscribe it for her, but I had to tell her that, honestly, nothing came to mind.
That was a lie – a thousand things came to mind, and I couldn’t parse which were appropriate to the situation, which were expected, which ones she wanted.
But she was moved. Impressed. Changed. And this in turn moved me.
It’s just a psychology 101 course. I expect people listen with half a mind, glad for something easier than calculus, anatomy and physiology, logic. But we cover a lot of ground. Epistemology, personhood, perception, memory and all its faults, emotions, mental health. Society and its ills, racism and poverty. The textbook is pretty Mickey Mouse, I guess, and yet we manage to get into Frankl and Maslow, Rogers and Skinner, Zhuangzi, Lu Xun, poetry, literature.
But I have some students who wonder, as I do, about what life would be like without a memory.
Or they contemplate the meaning of pain, its value as information and its value as value.
And at the end of all this, at the end of 16 weeks of Fritz Perls-style approaching and distancing from the heavy truths and the authentic realities — sometimes student have done more than just take in information such as years, names, dates, equations.
Again I’m moved.
And so, I reflect. This has been a journey, for sure. It’s become a practice I myself resisted for a long time. To get a degree in psychology, though, especially a doctorate, isn’t like getting a degree in another field.
To be a mathematician, you needn’t be anything. You need only know the theories and apply them correctly. Ditto electrical engineering. Nobody cares what sort of person you are; they care only that you are competent.
A psychologist, though, or a therapist, needs to become something. A person capable, willing and apt, for the work of psychology – the work of being with people during their trials and troubles, refraining from judgment, loaning your inner resources to them. Healing, helping, being-with them.
I knew by the time my degree was done I probably wasn’t going to earn enough money through work to justify the student loans I’ve accrued. That’s okay with me. I squared it like this: What I gained through my PhD study in psychology now is worth a lot more than money. I’d never give back my growth, change, the pain of compassion, the suffering of empathy.
And, after the end of the last class of the term, the students come. They arrive quietly, sometimes blushing, with shy smiles. Some try to tell me. But there aren’t words for what they want to tell, not really.
And I haven’t got any words to say back, not really.
Another place and another time and I’d have said, “Hey, sit on down. I’ll buy you a beer and try to listen.” But on the last day of class all I’ve got is your same shy smile, your same lack of words.
You know what else I’ve got?
I have this column on aNewDomain. Here I can write what I’m feeling, going through. What I went through. What it meant to me, what it was worth. How the news makes me rage sometimes, again, with that feeling of awakeness that now so moves me.
Listen. This week, my psychologist-in-training registration expires. I can’t afford to acquire the clinical hours and supervision necessary to license and besides, I don’t really want them now. I feel like I’m doing something good where I am.
Another ending. At the end of the school term for all these students is the end of this term for me, I think.
And so, a decision: I’m not a therapist, I’m never going to license.
My future is not in doing evaluations and writing reports, nor in sitting with people in their troubles.
It’s in sharing that shy smile with people who are learning and moved by it, blushing a little as they leave for that last time.
For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.
Image one by: Milford (own work) [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons; image two: “The lurker in the dark,” By Errol Fuller [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons; image three: BeerDrinkerSociety.blogspot.com, All Rights Reserved; image four of Fritz Perls: DDgap.de, All Rights Reserved.